The Music of Liza Lim: Chang-O Flies to the Moon

The third and last post in my short series of offcuts from The Music of Liza Lim, comes from the final chapter, ‘Music for the stage’. Lim’s second opera, Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) is very high on my fantasy list of revivals. Its complexity makes that unlikely, and the particulars of its staging (with audience participation, perambulating musicians, etc, etc) mean that there is no full recording. However, its sixth scene, the soprano aria ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’ was recently released by HCR on the Singing in Tongues album of Lim’s theatre music, which made it possible for me to write about this at least. In the event, I wasn’t able to include all of my analysis of this scene in the book, which features instead a brief overview of Yuè Lìng Jié itself.

NB: For licensing reasons, I’ve chosen not to include any of the musical examples that would have appeared in the printed text. However, all Liza’s scores can be found on nkoda.

Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) (1997–2000)

Yuè Lìng Jié was commissioned by the Telstra Adelaide Festival and was first performed there in March 2000 (it was staged five more times between 2002 and 2006 in Melbourne, Berlin, Zurich, Tokyo and Brisbane). It marks a peak in the exploration of Chinese culture and thought that runs through Lim’s music (and draws on her own Chinese heritage), beginning with Li Shang yin (1993) for soprano and fifteen instruments, through The Cauldron and The Alchemical Wedding, and on to later works such as The Quickening, The Compass, How Forests Think and The Su Song Star Map. It was written at the same time as Lim’s other major engagement with Chinese culture, Machine for Contacting the Dead, a double concerto for bass/contrabass clarinet and cello inspired by the fifth-century BC tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng that was discovered in 1977 and is one of China’s most celebrated archaeological sites.[1]

The opera was written with the author Beth Yahp, like Lim another Asia-born Australian, whose Chinese-Thai parents moved to Australia from Malaysia in 1984. Her first novel, The Crocodile Fury, published in 1992, tells a story of Asian migrant experience in a world populated with ghosts and spirits. In preparation for writing the opera, the two women spent a fortnight in Malaysia researching Chinese opera, shamanic rituals and shadow puppet theatre in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Of particular interest to them was the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, during which spirits are believed to be released from hell to roam the earth and demand offerings, prayers and performances, and the opera’s staging draws heavily on Southeast Asian street festivals like this. In Adelaide, the set was constructed on a barge on the Torrens River; the musicians performed both on the stage and in a ‘shrine’ behind the audience. Audience participation was important, as was the inclusion of food stalls, the burning of incense and the decoration of the river bank with lights and religious offerings: the work’s performances were multi-sensory, festive occasions. Finally, the performance space was blessed by a Daoist priest prior to the first rehearsal.

There are four characters: the moon goddess Chang-O (soprano), the demon goddess Queen Mother of the West (dancing mezzo-soprano), the Archer Hou-Yi and the Monkey King (both performed by acrobatic baritone). The ensemble of nine instruments includes erhu, koto and two percussionists, the second of whom moves around the performance space. It was performed by Deborah Kayser, Melissa Madden Gray, Orren Tanabe and ELISION, conducted by Simon Hewett, directed by Michael Kantor and designed by Dorotka Sapinska.

Yuè Lìng Jié retells the story of Chang-O from a number of angles – a woman transformed into a goddess, a figure of nightmare, a wish-granting heavenly creature – and its seven scenes and two interludes draw on many Asian theatre traditions, including riddles, puppet shows, song contests and poetry. In the aria for soprano that constitutes Scene 6, Chang-O takes charge of her own story as she takes an elixir of immortality and completes her transformation. Her aria is accompanied by a striking quartet of bass flute, koto, cello and percussion (water gong, frame drum and yunluo or ‘cloud gong’), whose timbral profile resembles that of the Cassandra-quartet in The Oresteia. Lim’s technique of dynamic heterophony, developed in the mid-1990s, is markedly more evident here than it was in her first opera, and the music freely explores heterophonic relationships between voice and instruments.

The scene begins with soprano and cello on a pedal on D. Chang-O sings of herself in the third person, characterising herself as others have done before. As the music continues, soprano and cello explore in turn ways of enlarging the space around their pedal note, using changes in timbre and, a little later, melodic deviations that eventually dismantle this single perspective altogether. Although it is fully notated, the musical effect is like that in Bardo’i-thos-grol, as the musicians gradually carve out a sonic territory from a single point. Lim acknowledges the influence of the installation on her opera: its last pages (unfortunately not available on recording) are an attempt to recreate the sound of Deborah Kayser’s heart chakra ‘Song of compassion’.[2]

As Chang-O ascends, she begins singing in the first person. Interrupted by a chorus of police whistles – a representation of attempts to control and contain her story? – she continues regardless, drawing strength from the celestial birds around her: ‘I have your reason. / Your wishbone blazing / Alchemy of feathers / Wind-heart tremors’. Like the steps of an ascending staircase, the musicians maintain a string of gestures that appear to emerge from each other: as Chang-O’s words turn towards the second person and the support she receives from her environment, her song becomes heterophonically attuned to the accompanying ensemble. In bars 39–40, the cello’s D (the starting point established in the first section of the aria) becomes an upward, tremolo glissando; this is picked up by the bass flute as buzzing multiphonics around the pitches F♯ and C♯. Picked up by the voice, the first of these becomes a relatively pure, continuous tone – a temporary moment of stability and focus that is reinforced (in asynchronous rhythm) by the cello’s harmonic – before the flute initiates a multiphonic splitting of the F♯ (mirroring its figure from the previous bar) and then a melodic descent that is taken up in different ways by both voice and cello. Koto and then percussion enter a few bars later, but the relay of gestures and energies continues even as Earth falls further away (see bars 80–82).

In the next section Chang-O, singing along, reveals more of the (untold) details of her own immortal origins: ‘Before my blood and spirit fused / I was already burning / Womb ice wanting / Pregnant with fire’. The music is suitably chilling, the continuity of the previous section fractured into isolated, searching gestures.

For the final section, Chang-O returns to the D with which she began. Now it is a stage for new beginnings as, unaccompanied again, she sings a series of first-person affirmations: ‘I rise, I ripple, I reach, I resonate’. Each one is subtly word-painted, as in bars 107–14. From here to the end of the scene, sixteen bars later, the ensemble is silent, except for a delicate harmonic shading beneath ‘I resonate’.

With the last phrase of her aria, Chang-O rises from the D that has been her anchor throughout to a high A on the words ‘I embrace you’. In a programme note, Lim explains the role of Chinese grammar in this ending, and the aria overall. Although the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are distinguished in written Chinese, in the spoken form they are represented by the same syllable. (The written form of ‘she’ was only invented in the twentieth century, when Chinese writers first began translating European texts.) The shifts in pronoun that take place in ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’ are therefore significant to both Chang-O’s story and the emergence of female identity in Chinese culture. ‘The singing subject “she” transforms into “I” through to “you” until at the end “you” (her shadow presence) comes into an embrace and unity with “I”’. At the end of the aria, ‘the ensemble dissolves into silence leaving Chang-O singing alone, in an ecstatic opening up to the self’.

[1] The tomb is noted in particular for containing a large number of musical instruments, including a set of sixty-four bronze bells.

[2] Conversation with the author, August 2021.

The Music of Liza Lim is available to pre-order from Wildbird Music until 11 September, and will be more widely available after 12 September. See here for pricing, ordering and other details. I will be in Berlin on 11 September for a launch event at the Philharmonie supported by Musikfest Berlin in association with the Australian Embassy in Berlin. Come by if you are around and I will sign you a copy.


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